How to get rid of unwanted thoughts

© Kees de Vos

A friend of mine is plagued with unwanted thoughts.

He’s been diagnosed with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and I can tell how bad he is at any given moment by the number of times he calls me — he says I say the same stuff as his psychologist but I’m a lot cheaper! :-)

I mean… this is a guy who is bordering on reckless in many areas of his life but is brought to his knees with fear from thoughts that are totally irrational…

If I told you what they were you’d think it was silly but these silly thoughts dominate his life completely.

I don’t believe in the OCD label, at least not in his case. What I see is an extreme example of the issues we all face — the inability to drive our own mental car, the inability to choose the focus of our attention, the inability to see thought for what it really is…

Roll up! Roll up!

My friend and I have the same conversation over and over…

“How do I get rid of these thoughts?”

“You have to not pay attention. There is only one method — distraction. Pay attention to something else.”

Sounds simple eh? It is simple! The question is — can you do it?

Say you’re walking through a fun-fair when one of the stall holders is giving you the hard sell. We’ve all been there. He’s in your face basically, but you know instinctively that any attention you give him will only make the problem worse. If you even look at him you know he just won’t leave you alone.

Some thoughts can be like that — they’re in your face, they urge you in the strongest possible way to act out a certain thing.

Thought becomes you… unless you watch

I was watching a video clip of Eckhart Tolle the other day… He said:

“We notice only the content; we don’t see the field in which the content happens.”

I remember too, a lecture by Alan Watts who drew a circle and asked his students what the circle was. Some said a ball, some said it was the sun and so on. They were all wrong… it was a hole! We don’t notice the background.

Thoughts and feelings can have amazing power. They suck your attention right in and you have no power to stop it. They suck you in so much that you no longer notice the field (you), only the content (thought/feeling).

That’s the problem my friend has. I’ve told him the solution to his problem a thousand times but he’s struggling to actually do it. His thoughts, backed by his belief have too much power.

And make no mistake; we’re talking a lot of power here. OCD = compulsive = no choice. We all have OCD to some extent. Little or no choice.

Thankfully, over time and with constant practice, things are getting better but it’s a tough road and progress is sure, but painfully slow.

Trauma — useful or dangerous?

In his case, a childhood trauma was the event that started all this mess. Traumatic events have amazing power to affect our unconscious minds and generate fear. This is a good thing.

If you’re walking though the jungle and get attacked by a lion, it’s this very same process that stops you repeating the same mistake again. You learn when to fear a lion attack and that is a good thing!

But if trauma is attached to insignificant events, then those insignificant events take on the fear that should be reserved for lion attacks. Say your parents always fought at the dinner table and caused you to be always in a state of anxiety at meals times, then food would become something to fear, by association.

This initial cause can then be strengthened over the years by your attention until life-stopping phobias can result. Now we have a deep problem that’s really hard to shift.

Still… not paying attention to unwanted thoughts is the true solution. But can you do it?

Finding freedom

First, you have to see the field in which the content takes place. There has to be space between your thoughts. When there is a gap, suddenly you notice the thought arising. There is more chance of your being able to choose, when there is space.

But the real bottom line, the true solution, the therapy of therapies is meditation. This is the practice where you learn how to get space between thoughts — where you notice a thought and can look at it with curiosity.

This is where you learn how to be free, where you learn to say “yes” or “no”, where you learn where the off switch is.

If you have no freedom over your thoughts, then you’re merely a physical puppet of mind-energy — a proverbial “leaf in the wind”, with no control over yourself or freedom at all. It’s like getting into your car, shutting your eyes tight and pressing your foot down on the accelerator…

No, we want to choose where the car goes and be able to steer, surely?

You’d have to be crazy…

The other component to my friend’s problem is belief. Of course, he believes his silly thoughts are true… it’s his own mind generating the fear, so if he didn’t believe his own mind he’d have to admit he was crazy.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, he is not the content of his mind and so secondly, he’s not crazy. His mind is working perfectly to the program. It’s the content, the program, the conditioning, which doesn’t serve him.

So, he is not the content. He would still be himself if he’d not had that trauma as a child. Identification with content is a big problem. We define ourselves by the content, by our experiences. But that’s not us.

Our beliefs, experiences and thoughts are often random programmings of life… interesting, often beautiful, sometimes ugly but they’re not us. They define our personality but that’s not us either. “Persona” is Greek for “mask” did you know?

While we identify with all these things we aren’t free to choose something else…

The solutions…

The belief part has to be dislodged as much as possible by reason. In my friend’s case, explaining to him at length why his fear is irrational opens the door to him letting it go and being motivated to do the not-work of distraction — not paying attention.

If he still truly believed his fear was valid, he would never do what’s required because he would still believe the fear served him. Once the understanding is there — that the fear, or the habit of thought does NOT truly serve your best interests, you’re free to try to get rid of it.

You uproot unwanted thought and fear by practicing meditation. It’s tough to see the process for what it is in everyday life when your mind is bombarded by triggers and sensory input constantly. By making everything quiet you see the process for what it is.

I am the background

Here you are… “I AM”

There is the thought.

The thought happened.

The thought has no power unless I give it more attention.

I have choice.

Unless you’ve ever tried to meditate, you won’t understand how little power you have over thoughts that happen to you.

When I first started meditating over 20 years ago, the very first morning, I had 30 minutes meditation planned — I started off just fine… then 20 minutes later I remembered I was supposed to be meditating!

Twenty minutes!

Lost in thought

Thoughts are somewhat like snooker balls. One crashes into another into another into another without ceasing forever and ever and each thought sucks you in — in a word… hell. There’s no peace to be found here, no now, no joy.

We reap what we sow and thoughts are seeds. If you’re not choosing what you sow, you won’t be reaping what you want.

I can’t meditate… it makes it worse!

My friend won’t do it. He won’t do the not-work. He admits he’s lazy but there’s more to it. When he’s having a few good days there’s no motivation. When hell descends on him he’s highly motivated but often in a state of high anxiety.

By the time the thoughts and feelings have escalated into anxiety it’s virtually impossible to rein it in. You have to nip unwanted thoughts in the bud. Spot them arising and withdraw attention before they trigger big emotions and fears.

By the way, if it’s gone pear-shaped and anxiety takes over, the best thing to do is exercise. You’ve got no chance of calming down when you’re pumped with adrenalin.

Also, when he tries to meditate, he has to face his inner demons close up through what feels like a big big magnifying glass and that feels scary at first. The solution to that is to start with relaxation techniques — get out of “fight or flight” and into “the relaxation response”.

So anyway, I can’t convince him and he’s chosen to attempt to just try and not pay attention. This is the slow route as I said, because it’s difficult to see the process with a thousand thoughts, sensory input and internal triggers going on.

You can’t fight the darkness

Meditation teaches you that attention is where the power is. You cannot try to suppress or fight any thought or feeling. That’s just more attention!

The solution is to notice it, let it be, let it go and choose a different focus.

Put your attention onto something else. As difficult as it is to ignore the fair ground stall holder, that’s what’s required. If you go up to him and scream and shout for him to go away, things are likely to get even nastier :-)

At first it takes every ounce of inner strength to hold your attention onto something else, to ignore the unwanted thought. But as you persist, it gets easier and easier until eventually, the thought has no more power over you.

Ignore thoughts you don’t want and hold onto thoughts you do want. That is power! It’s the power to say yes or no. And the same applies to feelings, which are emotional reflections of thoughts.

“I just wanted to say that since I read this article I have had no issues at all. What you wrote cured me and I am totally amazed by it. I am so impressed with the results, I feel totally different and peaceful.

I have seen so many health professionals over my problems, but none has ever come close to the advice that you give. Thanks Mike you have honestly changed my life.”— John Woods, Australia

“For the last week I’ve been practicing indifference towards unwanted thoughts + quick and intense shifting of attention to anything else.

When I started doing it, I got relief in few minutes as the quality of fear associated with these recurring thoughts was gone. Within hours I found calmness and peace growing within me.

It took an initial 3-4 days to have full grasp over the method and develop some more understanding. And now my thoughts have become very much reduced in frequency, and they have lost their power and don’t trouble me anymore. And it’s all because of one technique only.

I am sharing my experiences with other people having O.C.D. on internet and telling them about your website and trying to help them as I got it when I needed it the most. Sir, you have changed my life. and all that I can say is THANK YOU.”— Shivesh, India

Meditation is freedom…

…and that folks, is how you get rid of unwanted thoughts.

Best wishes,
Michael Kinnaird

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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672 thoughts on “How to get rid of unwanted thoughts

  1. Hi Michael. I began to follow your advices and tried to ignore my intrusive thoughts, seeing them as just irrelevant thoughts we all have sometimes. Since I’m having this trouble for 3 months now I must confess this has been really Hard.

    I’m having chills all over my body and head all day long and a feeling that this (the act of ignore my thoughts) wont work. I mean… was that supposed to happen in the beginning of my “healing”? It feels like it is all true and I wont get out of this.

    I must say as well that I almost dont get out of my house. I gained amost 30 pounds since my OCD trip has began. I feel terrible. Does this makes the thoughts worse ’cause I have (Had haha) full time to think about them?

    I really dont know if I’m doing things right anyway I will keep trying even my mind saying it wont work.

    Thanks. :)

    1. It sounds like your overall state needs some attention Jamie. If you just have a single thought that you accidentally gave too much meaning / attention to, it’s easy enough just to ignore it and you’re back to normal pretty quickly. But if you’re experiencing symptoms like you’re describing, your whole lifestyle needs some attention.

      If you’re in a bad state, it’s incredibly difficult to ignore, and feel separate from, what’s going on in your head. The best thing you can do is read the book because everything affects everything else. It only takes an hour and it’ll show you how to achieve both health and peace of mind, in the shortest possible time.

      Does this makes the thoughts worse ’cause I have (Had haha) full time to think about them?

      Right now, yes, because it’s all about attention and at the moment you have time to give these thoughts attention. Without attention, the thoughts disappear. In fact though, once you learn how to quieten the mind and live in the moment, it doesn’t matter how much spare time you have, because you’ll be the master of your own mind.

    2. Incidentally, this is why when people suffer a bereavement, they tend to throw themselves into work, or a big project at home. Deep down, they know it’s all about attention and they know the work will keep them distracted (ie. attention off), painful thoughts.

      Once you’ve achieved a peaceful mind though, it’s not necessary to “keep yourself busy” because you always have choice over what you pay attention to.

  2. Hi Mike,
    Need your help to get rid of my panic Situation..In one of my group there was a post that if anyone feel palpitation/tremor in their left hand its a symptom that the person will die in six months…Its a strange message..I have this trmor in my left arm since last month and i am worried all the time and no peace of mind since then…I feel that something is going to happen to me in six months..I also feel the tremor every now and then…Please help me to come out of this situation. Has anyone face this kind of Tremor in left hand. I feel all the time that i am going to die soon…please help me to to come out of this negative thought..I have a kid and couldnt concentrate time with her because of this..I feel some heaviness in heart..Kindly help…

    1. Hi Nirmala, as I mentioned before, it’s clearly nonsense to say that a person will die in six months, based on one symptom. Biology is way more complex than that. I recommend getting it checked out so that you can assess your options based on the result, if needed. If your doctor prescribes medication, it’s worth having a good think about whether to take them, again depending on the diagnosis. You could also talk to the doctor about the conditions needed for coming off the medication. In the long run, prioritize your health so that your body can return to, and stay in, a state of health. The book will help with that :-)

      Best wishes,

  3. Well, first week trying to ignore my intrusive thoughts and I feel way better than before. Obviously they are still with me and bother me sometimes but I’m not surrending. No matter how vivid and real them are, I just see them as ANOTHER thought and let them go away.

    I think it will take some time till I get free of these thoughts. I read once here that “old habits die hard”, so I cant expect my thoughts gone away in just one week.

    Anyway, I will keep going guys.


    1. Thanks wonderful Jamie. Yes, exactly, thoughts have a certain momentum due to all the attention they’ve had. So just stay consistent. Keep ignoring, keep not caring about them and they’ll die away out of your life. Well done!

  4. Hi all,

    I am having chills and hot flashes and my thoughts are something weird….I get panic attacks while before sleep and while i am traveling in car or bike…I do my job at office and i forget everything during my office hours.. But start of the day is worse for me.

    Now a days I am unable to stop negative thoughts keep coming and coming creating more panic/ fear.

  5. I hate unwanted thoughts. Been getting them since i was a little kid. Stuff like”I hate god” would just pop in my head out of nowhere. The thing is, I didn’t hate god and I wasn’t even mad or upset. The day would be going by completely fine and then here comes the thought out of nowhere. Is it really anxiety OCD that causes these, or is it some kind of technology or maybe demons doing it? Because the thoughts are always negative makes sense it would be a demon. Paranormal scratches have been proven to be real. So it’s almost guaranteed these are scummy negative demons who feed from people having those thoughts. I just wish they were not allowed to vio late our will like that. I WILL NOT think any thoughts that are not mine. Why can’t they respect that, and move on to someone who doesn’t give a shit if they think those thoughts.

    Oh that’s right, caring just creates more resistance. Everything has to be a freaking war here. lol typical matrix bullshit

    1. Hiya, I’ve experienced similar negative thoughts to your “I hate God” experience, seen as untrue. I think they are conditioned, picked up by the culture, parents, TV, peers etc. I also find that if someone is in an anxious state, then traumatizing thoughts can embed vividly and easily. Sensitive people are prone to this kind of conditioning… say if parents argue a lot and create a highly charged negative atmosphere, then something similar to PTSD can happen. Then in life, if someone is feeling stressed out, it can be a trigger for repeats. Often they can come out of the blue too, but I feel being in a anxious state makes it more likely.

      I don’t believe demons are responsible. i.e. other non-physical beings violating your mental space.

      Resistance does make the unwanted thoughts bigger, because ANY meaning amplifies. “What you resist persists” because it’s about attention and meaning. So the subconscious brings you more of what you give meaning to. That is why the simple answer is always 1. WITNESS the thought, then it is not “I” having the thought, you do not identify with it, you are merely observing that the thought happened, 2. Strip it of meaning (who knows the cause? Who cares? I see it is not true), 3 Remove attention (because why give more attention to meaningless thoughts that I see are not true?).

      It is a mistake to search for the cause. Sometimes it can help with dis-identification but it’s unnecessary if the process is clear. Searching for the cause is attention, so if the cause isn’t clear after minimal searching, drop that idea as meaningful (that knowing the cause matters).

  6. I so glad to find this site. I have dealt with anxiety and OCD for over 20+ years. I fainted a fw day ago went to doctor said I might have been dehydrated or low blood pressure. it was in the morning. My educated self says don’t worry you went to the doctor. My OCD self wants to obsess that I will faint again. I know what to do but am still thinking it could happen again. I like what you wrote I hope that helps me

    1. Hi Laurie, well it’s natural to want to prevent a repeat. What can you do? You checked with the doctor, so beyond that, the ultimate focus is to live the healthiest life, not only to prevent fainting but to prevent every disease that people suffer from. That’s what the Happy Guide book is all about.

      Mentally, you’re looking for relief from a problem. A real problem is one that doesn’t go away if you stop thinking about it. So how to prevent? Focus on living the healthiest life, take steps towards that I would say. Health is multi-factored so it’s great to be really clear about what you need to do every day, and make it all into good habits.

      Once you are satisfied that you’re doing all you can, then you can ignore all fears/thoughts around it as suggested in this article. James has written something specifically about fear of fainting here…

  7. Hi,
    I think this will sound stupid but it has really been bothering me since a long time now. I don’t know if I have OCD or not, or if this is related to it. Here’s my problem:
    Most of the time, when I’m thinking something, my thoughts get associated with what I’m looking at or with another thought which comes in my mind. For example: I was looking at the fan and I thought of a person at the same time. Now whenever I look at it I remember the same thing every time. There are several other examples. I also have a thought that will I be thinking the same thing next time I do this? And I think that is the reason why it gets stuck in my mind but I don’t know how to get rid of it. I remember that when I was little, the same thing used to happen but I don’t know how I became normal because this did not happen to me again until I had anxiety last year.
    I just want to know that should I use the distraction method and ignore “these” kinds of thoughts? And how can I stop linking other thoughts with something else next time?

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I was looking at the fan and I thought of a person at the same time. Now whenever I look at it I remember the same thing every time.

      Yes, our minds work by association. One thing connects with another. A classic example of this is Pavlov’s dogs. He rang a bell every time he fed his dogs, and of course before long the bell was all that was needed to get the dogs salivating, as they knew dinner was on its way. :-) A classic human example is hearing a song that immediately reminds us of where we were, or what were doing, the first time we heard it. The strength of association depends on repetition and intensity. So if we were extremely scared for example, while looking at a certain person, the sight of a similar person in the future could produce a similar fear response, because of the association. If you repeatedly saw the similar person, the association could deepen — depending on your reaction.

      This is all perfectly normal and natural, it’s how our minds work. It’s what keeps us safe from danger. In your case, you have associated the sight of a fan with a person. That’s fine, it’s not a problem.

      I also have a thought that will I be thinking the same thing next time I do this? And I think that is the reason why it gets stuck in my mind but I don’t know how to get rid of it.

      What you resist, persists. By paying attention to it, you are assigning it importance. It’s like saying to your mind “this is relevant, important — dangerous even”. It’s not helpful (in terms of happiness) to predict or worry about, what your mind might do in the future. So if you notice your mind wandering onto these types of thoughts, just pull your attention back to what you are doing right now.

      I remember that when I was little, the same thing used to happen but I don’t know how I became normal because this did not happen to me again until I had anxiety last year. I just want to know that should I use the distraction method and ignore “these” kinds of thoughts? And how can I stop linking other thoughts with something else next time?

      Yes, anxiety can send the mind into overdrive. It’s like your mind starts whirring, looking for answers, solutions to “the problem”. This was a very helpful survival tool in our natural setting. In modern life, it can be quite dysfunctional because the anxiety is rarely caused by a clear and present danger like a lion. It’s usually more of a “background” thing. So yes, anxiety triggers this type of thinking, then the power of habit keeps your attention on it — until you consciously decide otherwise.

      You got over it by not paying attention anymore, by not giving these kinds of thoughts any importance. You probably just became distracted by life and naturally forgot. Do the same again — don’t worry there is nothing to solve. Just ignore these thoughts if they pop up. A regular meditation habit will make this easier and easier to do. In the long run, make sure your lifestyle is conducive to health and peace of mind — the big causes of happiness. When you do that, this type of issue doesn’t pop up. :-) The book tells you exactly how to do that and only takes about an hour to read.

      Best wishes,

  8. I have been following your techniques and they have been a great help. i used to irrelevant thoughts like “I took so and so supplement and I want a brain scan because what if so and so supplement affected my brain chemistry?” Other irrelevant thoughts sometimes appear in my mind “What should I major in this type of business or another type? Its another thought that is irrelvant. “This class is so late I want to get out” or “the comparisons between people come into my mind bc being compared was a tendacy my mom would have againist me. “My notes are messy and not good. I think I need to look at the other person’s notes.” Lastly some other thoughts come to me like “I don’t think this group chat is good for me maybe I should leave. I don’t feel involved, whats the purpose of me joining?” So many and at one point I found myself overcomplicating things that didn’t need complicating.

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